Fabien Namias: A very simple question to begin with. Two months after the fall of Aleppo, can you say that you have won the war?
Bashar al-Assad: No. I do not think that we can talk about having won the war before beating all the terrorists throughout Syria. It is only an important step on the path that is going to lead us to beat and eliminate terrorism from our country; but I think that this will be a long path. And this is for one, simple reason: the terrorists are supported by a number of Western powers including France, the United Kingdom and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in our region.
Fabien Namias: You talk of a long path but can you summarize from a military perspective, the goals that you still have to reach?
Bashar al-Assad: It is clearly the case that when I talk about eliminating terrorists from our country, I mean recapturing every inch of our territory. In order to restore it to government control, because it falls on the government to retake control over the entire territory.
Fabien Namias: But what part of Syria, which city in particular are you talking about?
Bashar al-Assad: Do you mean after Aleppo?
Fabien Namias: Yes.
Bashar al-Assad: Clearly we are pursuing our campaign in the area surrounding Aleppo in order to immunize the town against any fresh terrorist attack coming from the West or the North that are receiving direct support from Turkey, the Turkish army.
Michel Scott: But will the next phase not be Idlib? That is what is said, that the next big battle will be Idlib.
Bashar al-Assad: It could be Idlib, it could be Raqqa. It could be anywhere. Now it all depends on the evolution of the situation from one day to the next, because we can change plans on the basis of that. We have not established this plan before ending operations in the city and the Aleppo campaign. So it is still too early to talk about the next phase. Everything depends on the battles in the different sectors.
Michel Scott: But the situation at the military level is now much better for you, right?
Bashar al-Assad: Of course, freeing every terrorist stronghold indicates that that the situation is improving. But we cannot be satisfied with this.
Michel Scott: Sir, there can be no doubt that Isis is the principal terrorist threat facing France. You consider every armed group, or at least most of them, as terrorist organizations. Why does Isis not represent a specific threat for you?
Bashar al-Assad: There are two limbs to my response.
First, it is not us, the government, that defines them as terrorists; rather they are so defined by the legislature and international law. Anyone who carries a weapon in my country, or in yours, and begins to kill people and destroy property is a terrorist. It is an international concept. And thus we are not the only ones to define it thus. As far as we are concerned, and under this law itself, anyone who wishes to lay down their arms, is excluded from the definition of terrorist from that time on.
But now you talk about Daesh. I think that when you say that the French or the Europeans are worried about Daesh, this is tantamount to saying that they have not fully grasped the situation. Daesh is the result of the problem not the source of it. The problem resides in Daesh’s ideology which is the same ideology that animates the Al Nusra Front; a number of other organizations adopt a similar ideology in Syria and perhaps in Libya and in other countries as well.
Thus you would have to be concerned that these terrorists do not only belong to Daesh or Al Nusra. They are implementing what their ideology commands them to do, which essentially is to carry out terrorist acts.
Fabien Namias: Thus for you there is no difference between Daesh and these other groups?
Bashar al-Assad: That is absolutely right. In Syria, all these organizations have the same roots. The same people that are members of Daesh used to belong to Al Nusra. Now they pass from one organization to another because these organizations share the same ideology: Wahhabism which is at the origins of this terrorism.
Q : Thus for you all of them are part of the same enemy? Thus all these terrorists resemble each other?
Bashar al-Assad: Yes of course. And this is in conformity with the law. It is not I who declares it. As I have just said, in accordance with the law and international law, noone in any country, have the right to hold arms apart from the Army and the Police. I think that that is also the position in France. If I am mistaken, please tell me so. But I think that this is the position throughout the world.
Michel Scott: Thus Raqqa which is the stronghold of Daesh, where the terrorist attacks that took place France were prepared, is not a priority target for you?
Bashar al-Assad: No, and once again, these attacks were not necessarily prepared in Raqqa. Raqqa is only a symbol of Daesh.
Michel Scott: A symbol?
Bashar al-Assad: Daesh has a presence near to Damascus. They are everywhere. As we speak, they are in Palmyra, and in the East of Syria. So the problem is not exclusively with Raqqa. There are priorities everywhere. And that depends on how the combats unfold. But for us, everything counts: Raqqa, Palmyre, Idlib, all of these count!
Michel Scott: Mr President, you are presenting yourself as the principal shield against terrorism. There are many people especially among us, who would say that Daesh on the one hand and your regime on the other, are two faces of the same evil which is seeking to repress every form of free expression in a democracy that exists in this country. What is your response to them? It is a genuine question.
Bashar al-Assad: First of all, we do not have a “regime”. We are a State with institutions.
Second, this is where the demonization of Syria, the Syrian government and its army is taking place - by mainstream media and Western political fields that right from the beginning have supported these so-called moderates. They said at the beginning that they were peaceful demonstrators; and after that they said that they were not so peaceful; that they were combatants but still moderates.
But in fact, they did not realize that they were supporting the very base of Al Qaida and Daesh. This is why they are now saying that we were promoting these terrorists, that were using them and to be completely upfront with you, as an alternative so that the West no longer has a choice.
First, the West does not have to choose between myself and Daesh. It is for my people to do that. This is because it is an issue that in its entirety pertains to Syria. Thus we do not have to do what the Western leaders think of all this. It would be far better for them to think about their own people, to protect them from the terrorist attacks that are taking place because of the policy they are pursuing.
Fabien Namias: Sir, we, especially those of us in France, are truly shocked, by the horrors of terrorism. But we are also horrified by the contents of the report produced by Amnesty International, published a few days ago, last week. It reports on the prison of Saidnaya, which is not very far from here and not far from Damascus. 13, 000 prisoners executed, hangings en masse and acts of torture. Amnesty refers – I am reading from the report – to a place where the Syrian state silently massacred its own people. Mr President, to win a war, is it the case that anything goes? Can you do whatever you like?
Bashar al-Assad: No. Everything is completely legal. You cannot do whatever you want…
Fabien Namias: But according to the Amnesty Report, we are no longer with in the parameters of legality…
Bashar al-Assad: No. There is a difference depending on whether we are speaking about the facts in Syria, or, on the contrary, allegations. If you want to make reference to allegations, we can spend an enormous amount of time doing this, because allegations never cease to be made. Anyone can say what they like and we can discuss it. But in this specific case, noone is speaking about the facts.
Now if you wish to speak of Amnesty International, then go ahead. Because it is an organization with a global reputation. It is shameful that it is beginning to use mere allegations as the foundation for a report.
If you appear before a court in your country, and you have plenty of them in your country, you have a judicial system: is it the case that this court could render any decision whatever on the basis of allegations or is it the case that it would require evidence? This report is based on allegations! Not a document; not a single shred of evidence. It did not even refer to 13,000 dead. It said between 5,000 and 13,000. It passes from one figure, to double that figure! This means that there is no precision. None of the alleged victims are named. Out of these thousands there are only 36. Furthermore there are several gaps.
For example, they said that the Grand Mufti supports the executions, whereas in Syria religious personalities strictly speaking have nothing to do with the judicial process. The death penalty is legal in Syria. It has been part of Syrian law since independence. Thus the government had the right to execute anyone, provided they do so in accordance with the law. So why would the government do it illegally?
Fabien Namias: Torture is illegal, even in Syria. Can you confirm that Amnesty’s claim is baseless and you do not practise torture in this prison at Saidnaya?
Bashar al-Assad: The issue is: why torture? What I am trying to say is why commit acts of torture? What are you trying to achieve? What do you gain from it? Is it simply to indulge in sadism? Are we sadists? Why would we do it? To obtain intelligence? We have all the information that we need. Thus we do not need to turn to torture.
This forms no part of our policy, for one simple reason: if we commit such atrocities, that will go in the sense of, in the interests of the terrorist, we are playing into their hands and then they will have won. Now we need to win the hearts of the Syrian people. If at any stage of this conflict we had committed such atrocities, we would not enjoy the popular support that we do [today] even after six years. It is a very simple reality. But let’s address these reports once again. A report must be based on facts. However, there is not a single accurate fact in it. That report should be evidence-based. Yet [its authors] have failed to do this.
Michel Scott: But Amnesty suggests sending international observers to your detention centres, specifically to collect evidence or to prove that you are right and that no crime has been committed. What is your response to this proposal?
Bashar al-Assad: I think it would be better to launch an enquiry into Amnesty itself for adopting a report based on allegations. It is embarrassing: an embarrassment for such an organization which has never been impartial but which has always taken a side.
Michel Scott: And the testimonies of former guards and prisoners?
Bashar al Assad: It is a question of sovereignty. If there are allegations everyday, and reports of this genre everyday, then we can devote our entire lives to receiving foreign delegations.
Would you accept it if you ask your government that a Syrian envoy be sent to you to investigate why your army [first] under Sarkozy, then under Holland attacked the Libyans, and killed tens or hundreds of thousands of them? Can you go to investigate the money that Sarkozy received from Gaddafi?
It is an issue of sovereignty. [So] no, we will not allow Amnesty to come here - under any pretext, or for whatever other reason. I am not speaking about this report, but the mass media: you must also carry out an investigation. On what is this report based. If it is simply a hotchpotch of allegations, then you cannot take it seriously.
Michel Scott: Thus your response is “No” to international observers to visit?
Bashar al-Assad: No. Most certainly not! We have no interest in this type of infantile report, that is totally lacking in a foundation. It is nothing other than allegations. They claim to have interrogated some witnesses who either form part of the opposition or are deserters. Thus it is an “impartial” report.
Michel Scott: Yet you acknowledge that official legal executions are taking place in Syria?
Bashar al-Assad: That has been the case since independence. The death penalty forms part of Syrian law and can be applied in the case of murder. That has nothing to do with this crisis, nor with this report or this prison. There is a legal manner to proceed, and that is called due process.
Fabien Namias: Sir, let us talk about relations between Syria and France. Some weeks from now, a new president will be elected in France. And one of the debates taking place in our country is on the resumption of dialogue with your government. Is it the case that you will be hoping for diplomatic relationships with France to be resumed?
Bashar al-Assad: What is important is not our diplomatic relations. The heart of the matter, and our number one concern is what is France’s political orientation? Not having diplomatic relations, does not present a huge problem in the immediate term. That said, in the long term, it would be necessary to have good relations, including diplomatic relations, with all countries.
Fabien Namias: You have hit the nail on the head, so let’s talk about France’s political orientation!
Bashar al-Assad: Let’s do exactly that. France’s policy, right from day one has been to support terrorists in Syria and it is directly responsible for the butchering in our country.
Fabien Namias: How can you say that? You are making a very serious accusation against France! How can you say that France is supporting terrorism?
Bashar al-Assad: Some people are saying this. I am not accusing them. They have maintained on several occasions that they have supported the war. The French President Hollande, at the same time recently declared that it would have been an error not to have declared war in 2013. There are those who have declared that they were sending weapons to those that they call the moderate groups but who in actual fact are terrorists. They are the ones that said it, not I. The Americans have said the same things; the French also. Thus if you return to the declarations made by your leaders during the last 2, 3 or 4 years, you will find more than one declaration made by French leaders. They charge themselves.
Michel Scott: François Hollande is on the verge of leaving power in France. And you are still there. So have you clinched the power struggle with François Hollande?
Bashar al-Assad: It is not a question of him and I. There is no personal element here. I have never met him and to be frank, I am not at all worried about him with his 11% popularity rating which I think is said to hit a low unparalleled by his predecessors in France’s history. In actual fact, the principal players in this game are myself and the terrorists. In fact until now, the terrorists have not been able to win this war. But they are destroying Syria. They have killed some hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Thus I cannot say that I have won the war. They have not been able to accomplish their plan, that is true, but still today we have still not ended our war. Thus I cannot say that I have won this war.
Michel Scott: Are you following the French electoral campaign?
Bashar al-Assad: We are following the key events but not the detail. Indeed, we are not relying on elections in Western countries. This is for the simple reason that we do not take Western leaders literally when they campaign. Their words are aimed at winning over the voters and are not spoken in the interests of their country. It is a fact. I am speaking to you frankly.
Fabien Namias: Sir, do you at least see a difference between the right and the left in France on the issue of French-Syrian relations?
Bashar al-Assad: Yes, one can see a difference but at the end of the day, what really matters is the policy of the president-elect. Is it the case that it conforms to what he was pledging before his election or not. That is the real issue. Thus we are not relying on that. Our clear preference is for someone who is not agitating for war. That is what we would prefer but we do not know anything about it.
Fabien Namias: For example, who is your preferred choice among those that reject the war.
Bashar al-Assad: Actually, I cannot see any major differences at present. But once again, I am not putting my money on the rhetoric of this one or that one. From this point of view, there is not really any difference.
Michel Scott: And do you have any contacts with some of the candidates? Or any of them?
Bashar al-Assad: No, we have not established contact with any of them.
Fabien Namias: And with our intelligence services?
Bashar al-Assad: In some cases, we have had indirect contact.
Fabien Namias: With the French Secret Services?
Bashar al-Assad: Yes.
Fabien Namias: And have you personally had contact with our intelligence services?
Bashar al-Assad: Indeed, during the visit of a Parliamentary delegation to Syria, one member of the [French] delegation was a member of the intelligence services. Thus these contacts exist. Of course, the French government has declared that it was a parliamentary delegation but it had nothing to do with it. Of course it disproved of it. It is not true: there are of course several channels of communication.
Fabien Namias: One country that has already changed its president is the United States. One of the first decisions that Donald Trump took was the “Muslim Ban”. This aims at preventing citizens from several Muslim countries including Syria. As a Syrian citizen, as the President of Syria, do you view this as a way to humiliate you?
Bashar al-Assad: No. The ban is not targeted at the Syrian people, rather the terrorists that could infiltrate through certain immigrants who have come to the West. This has already occurred in Europe – Germany provides a good example. This example risks being replicated in the United States. I think that Trump’s goal is to prohibit these people from entering and this is how he is going about it. Then…
Fabien Namias: So he has taken the correct path when he has …
Bashar al-Assad: No. I am talking about something on which we can, as individuals, agree or not. However as President, it is not really a matter of concern.
What concerns me is the power to repatriate Syrians to Syria and not to send them to the United States. I will not be happy to see them emigrating to other countries. What makes me happy is that they can return to Syria because they want to return there. Because most of the Syrians that left did so because of terrorism and the Western embargo.
Thus if I want to act on this decision, I will ask Trump and the other Western powers to lift the embargo and to stop supporting the terrorists. Then this would stop being a problem issue for them. They would have neither immigrants nor terrorists that are infiltrating among the immigrants. Furthermore and this is another important point, it is not out of concern for the fate of Syrians or other countries that there has been this outpouring of emotion on the decisions of Trump. It is because one wants to use our cause, or our problem to feed their conflict with Trump. Other decisions have been taken by Obama some months ago on this same subject, yet the dominant medias in the US have not talked about it. They only began to talk when Trump made his announcement in such an open manner.
Fabien Namias: So does this mean that you feel more at ease with Donald Trump than with Barack Obama?
Bashar al-Assad: No, I can only feel at ease once I have seen his policy on Syria. I still have not seen it. Once again, it is necessary to exercise caution with all Western leaders, because they are capable of saying one thing in the morning and doing quite the opposite in the evening. They are not committed. They are pragmatists in the extreme, to the extent that they will trade off their values. I would be inclined to say that their policies do not spring forth from their values.
Michel Scott: There is at least one thing that has not changed to date and that is the US withdrawal from this region. It is clear enough. A second series of negotiations on the future of Syria is commencing in Astana in Kazakstan as we speak. It is rather striking that the Western countries are completely outside the game: they do not appear in the panorama. It is really a good thing for the future of the negotiations and the perspectives of peace in the region?
Bashar al-Assad: No. The greater the support for a political process, the better it is. But the western countries that have been involved in these processes, notably France and the United Kingdom have lost an opportunity to accomplish something at Geneva, and this on two occasions. They have achieved nothing precisely because they were supporting these groups that represented terrorism against the government. Their objective was not to bring about peace in Syria. Rather, they wanted to use the framework of the entire process to reach their goal.
Michel Scott: But the fact is that the destiny of the Middle East is sponsored by two countries: Iran and Russia, neither of which have a record of democracy. Is this a good thing?
Bashar al-Assad: Once again, the more countries that are involved, the better it is. We are not the only ones that see things like this; the Russians share our position. This is why we have invited a number of countries to participate and to help fight terrorism and to support them in this political process. However Western countries were very passive with respect to these initiatives. For example, where are they in relation to Astana? Have the Russians told them not to come? No! They are the ones that have made up their minds not to participate in it.
Michel Scott: Thus to sum up: Iran and Russia are the ones that are promoting peace and the Western powers are agitating for war, is that it?
Bashar al-Assad: Exactly. 100%!
Fabien Namias: Let’s keep talking about Russia. Would you say that, at the end of the day, Vladamir Putin is the real decision maker in the region? And even in your country, Syria?
Bashar al-Assad: Not at all. In Syria, we are the ones that are making decisions. As far as the other countries are concerned, I lack authority to speak on their behalf. The Russians respect our sovereignty. Each manoeuvre, whether carried out for strategic or tactical ends, was taken with Syria’s cooperation. They have never done anything without consulting us. They are basing their policy on values and their interests, notably, what concerns the struggle against terrorism. So no. We are the decision makers.
Fabien Namias: But would you not say that without Russia, your government would have collapsed some time ago?
Bashar al-Assad: That question is pure conjecture. Noone can predict the outcome of the war because by definition, war is waivering. But of course, without help from Russia, things would have been worse. But how bad would things have got? Noone can tell. I cannot tell you if the government would have resisted or, if it would have collapsed.
But one thing’s for sure: the help of the Russians has been crucial in weakening Daesh and the Al Nusra Front. Because these groups began to speak to each other when the American coalition began its attacks: its cosmetic campaign. And they progressed until the Russians intervened and drove them to contract. This is what is actually happening. This is a fact.
Michel Scott: Are you struck by the fact that some years ago, most observers, most analysts repeatedly stated that you were not going to stay in power for very long? Yet now, especially after Aleppo, many people agree on the fact that it may well be the case that you in fact remain in place. Thus my question is the following. The question of you staying in power is being discussed right now in the Astana negotiations. In our countries, when a politician has poor record, generally speaking, he does not stay in power for a long time. After 17 years in power, six years of war, more than 300, 000 deaths, a country destroyed and divided, would you say on that on the moral plane and not on the legal plane, but rather the moral, would you say that this assessment authorizes you to stay in power regardless of the outcome of the negotiations that are currently under way.
Bashar al-Assad: You must be aware that these terrorists were the ones that committed these attacks in France, last year? You remember that the police had killed some of them? Would you tell these policeman that they are murderers or saviours? And yet they have killed! It is the same thing for a doctor that would amputate a leg because it is gangrenous. Would you tell him that he has committed an atrocity or that he has saved his patient’s life? What I am trying to say, is that you have to understand what motivates the act.
In our case, we were fighting terrorism to protect our people. I am not stating my personal opinion here. It is a duty that is entrenched in the Constitution and the law. Were I not to do it, I myself would be guilty of murder because I would permit the terrorists to kill even more Syrians in Syria.
The duty of your army is to protect the French. If this were not the case, your soldiers could say: “we are not going to intervene lest we are treated like murderers”.
Michel Scott: So would you say that at the end of the day, you have done all you could, all that you should do, for your country?
Bashar al-Assad: All that I could, yes! Absolutely! What did I have to do? It is for the Syrian people to tell me because there could be different positions on this. But as for the question of knowing if it is a bad assessment – and I am talking from the moral perspective that you have just brought up – this is for the Syrian people to assess whether it is good or bad and not the European leaders. They all kept saying Al-Assad has to be removed. Now they are no longer saying it. Neither opinion concerns me, since from the beginning, I have never factored them in to my thinking.
My priority is our fight against terrorism and the fight against their schemes that seek to destroy our country. This was my greatest concern from the very beginning. Whatever they say, it’s all the same to me. This assessment is a Syrian assessment and in no way a European assessment.
Fabien Namias: But when will the Syrian people be able to say whether they approve or not of your policy? We are holding elections in France at this very moment. When will the next elections in Syria take place?
Bashar al-Assad: There are two ways of achieving this. The means that currently we have at our disposal and those that we will have in the future, at the end of the war. At that time, we will be able to envisage all sorts of solutions, the ballot box, elections, anything is possible. Until then, the people only have a single tool to express themselves. Either to support us or not to support us.
After six years of war, if this president has a poor track record in the eyes of the Syrian people, why would it support him? It is a simple question: why should the people support him? Why do the people not support the terrorists?
And to return to your question, when you mentioned 300,000 or 400,000 dead and you say that it is the president that killed them, it’s like you were giving the terrorists a certificate of good conduct because it would be us that would have killed the people and they would have been the ones to protect them. As if it was Al-Qaeda, Al Nusra or Daesh that was protecting them and defending them. This is the essence of the question. And this is clearly not the case! The truth is that we are fighting for the Syrian people. This is why the Syrian people have supported the government, its army and its president.
Fabien Namias: Thank you Mr President for having received Europe1 and TF1.